January 13, 2000
Impact felt in Paducah
Conflict of interest tables plan to sell radioactive nickel
By Joe Walker
A controversial plan to sell radioactive nickel stored at Department of Energy plants here and elsewhere is on indefinite hold after a DOE contractor was found to have a conflict of interest for helping shape safety regulations for the work while also consulting with a metals recycler.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced Tuesday that no radioactive metals will be released from DOE plants until the department evaluates alternatives and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides whether to set national safety standards.
The decision has huge implications for the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which has at least $37 million in scrap nickel alone. Although selling the nickel would roughly recoup an entire year's environmental cleanup costs, the state of Kentucky and citizens' groups have raised safety concerns.
Richardson's news release did not disclose that the NRC ordered Science Application International Corp. to stop work Dec. 17 because it violated conflict-of-interest guidelines while doing research to help the commission consider regulations for recycling decontaminated materials from nuclear cleanup projects.
The conflict arose from SAIC's working on a large metals recycling project by British Nuclear Fuel Inc., a DOE contractor that is cleaning up several buildings at DOE's closed uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. British Nuclear is removing equipment containing large amounts of nickel and had the option to melt and decontaminate the nickel for sale under a state of Tennessee license.
The NRC has traditionally regulated consumer products to which radiation had been intentionally and beneficially added, but in the case of scrap metal - irradiated without beneficial effect - it has deferred the safety issue to the states.
The NRC's stop-work order said SAIC had "failed to provide immediate and full disclosure" of commercial dose assessment and metal recycling work with British Nuclear. "As a result, SAIC has conflicting roles which may bias its judgment in relation to its work for the NRC," the commission said.
SAIC, a large environmental contractor with offices near the Paducah plant and many other DOE sites, has said it disputes the NRC ruling. It met a commission request to disclose any similar work regarding other NRC-licensed facilities.
The NRC has not determined if the conflict of interest will mean scrapping SAIC's work and rewriting the rules for recycling contaminated metal.
DOE announced in August 1997 that it planned to sell 6,000 tons of contaminated nickel - left over from making nuclear weapons - this year for $41 million. But there was no safety standard for the radioactive metal.
Metal and scrap industry officials fought the plan, saying they could not guarantee consumer safety. Congressional critics feared there was no way to track the metal and it could wind up in children's dental braces, silverware, auto parts and other products. Special interest groups criticized DOE for not holding public hearings or doing an environmental impact study.
In announcing the project hold, Richardson said DOE will change its contract with British Nuclear to bar selling Oak Ridge nickel.
"We also are establishing a new policy prohibiting the release of all volumetrically contaminated metals at other DOE facilities," he said.
Richardson said the action will give time for the NRC to develop standards and submit them for public comment, and for the Energy Department to look at alternatives.
Volumetric is a term that applies to contamination throughout the mass of metal rather than just surface contamination. Richardson said the policy affects about 16,000 tons of metal, including 10,000 tons at sites other than Oak Ridge. Much of the excess is at the Paducah plant, which has an estimated 9,700 tons of nickel ingots in a 25-acre scrap yard. Besides nickel that coated some of the enrichment processing equipment, the scrap includes 20 tons of stainless steel, 40 tons of copper, 3,200 tons of aluminum and 31,500 tons of iron.
The bulk of the scrap was salvaged from machinery once used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants and weapons. A DOE report estimates that all the nickel can be recycled, 86 percent of the stainless steel, 66 percent of the copper, 6 percent of the iron and only six to seven tons of aluminum.
But the project has come under intense scrutiny locally as well as nationally.
Last year, the plant's citizens' advisory board passed a resolution opposing the sale of the metal, which has traces of radioactive plutonium and technetium. After state regulators questioned the project, DOE split it from a plan to clean up the "mountain" of rusted waste drums at the plant.
Among the chief critics in Congress has been Rep. John Dingell, ranking member of the House Commerce Committee. He wrote NRC Chairman Richard Meserve in December, accusing the commission of shirking its duty by deferring the scrap-metal safety issue to states instead of developing national safety standards.
Last week, Dingell sent another letter to Meserve, saying "the seriousness of this conflict of interest cannot be overstated, particularly given SAIC's interest in promulgating a rule permitting this recycling."
The letter said SAIC has sought in recent years to become "a major player" in recycling contaminated metals, and "a huge potential market" for SAIC and British Nuclear could follow the development of safety regulations.
Richardson's ban on the sale of the metal was the "correct, common-sense
decision," Dingell said Wednesday in a news release. "Now the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission must finally do its job or lose whatever meager
credibility it has left."